The United Kingdom's former defense chief is using some colorful language to criticize the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Nick Harvey, who served as armed forces minister from 2010 to 2012, recently said of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, "You could argue it was already one of the biggest white elephants in history a long time ago," according to an article by The Independent, a national newspaper based in London.
He added there was "not a cat in hell's chance" the Joint Strike Fighter would be combat-ready by 2018, the article states. In response, the Ministry of Defense defended the schedule and said the relatively few F-35s in the British fleet will reach war-fighting capability by that time.
The Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, estimated to cost about $400 billion to purchase 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.
U.S. allies are expected to buy hundreds more. Britain, for example, wants nearly 140 of the planes -- the largest planned international F-35 order. Some 130 of the aircraft have been built so far, including three for the U.K.
The F-35 is designed to replace such aircraft as the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter, A-10 Warthog attack plane, F/A-18 Hornet fighter and AV-8B Harrier jump jet, a variant of which is flown by the British air force.
Behind schedule and over budget from original projections, the acquisition effort has struggled to develop technologies, from the engine and tires to the helmet-mounted display and weaponry. Complicating matters, the hardware and software must be built for three versions of the aircraft, the F-35A, F-35B and F-35C.
Officials have said the program is making progress in reducing cost overruns and developmental challenges.
Yet even U.S. Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, recently acknowledged the F-35A will only offer limited close air support when it begins operational flights next year because it will initially lack the large area, high-definition synthetic aperture radar known as "BIG SAR" and a pinpoint glide bomb known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, or SDB-II.
"Those are systems that are going to be coming onto the airplane in later blocks," he said.
The Marine Corps' F-35B jump-set variant is scheduled to enter so-called initial operational capability, or IOC, later this year, followed by the Air Force's F-35A conventional version in the latter half of 2016, followed by the Navy's F-35C aircraft carrier variant in 2019. (The Marines, however, will reach the milestone in part by relying on software that doesn't integrate a full suite of weapons.)
The Defense Department plans spend $11 billion to buy 57 F-35s in the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, up from $8.6 billion to purchase 38 of the aircraft in the current year. U.S. lawmakers this week will debate legislation to authorize an additional $1 billion to buy six more F-35Bs than the Pentagon requested.
The additional aircraft were listed on a Marine Corps list of priorities that didn't receive funding in the Pentagon's spending plan for next year, according to a fact-sheet on the legislation from Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.